Northern California Fires Decimate Low-Income Communities

This article first appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

California Wildfires 2017

Sisters Selam (left) and Simret (right) play cards to help pass the time while their family seeks refuge from the wildfires at a Red Cross shelter in Santa Rosa, California.
Photo by Marko Kokic for The American Red Cross 

Northern California’s wildfires have sparked headlines around the world for their devastating impact on popular Wine Country destinations like Napa and Sonoma. But as firefighters gradually contain the flames and evacuated residents return to their homes, the story emerging is one not just of lost lives and jobs but also of the ‘hidden’ victims: the undocumented and low-income workers so crucial to the local economy.

“One of the deadliest and costliest wildfire catastrophes in California’s history” is how the state’s insurance commissioner Dave Jones describes recent events. According to CalFire, at least 42 people have died and over 8,400 structures (homes, outbuildings and commercial properties) have been destroyed in the wildfires which began on October 8. Thousands have been displaced from homes that range from wineries and town houses to trailer parks.

CalFire has declared the Tubbs wildfire the state’s worst ever, claiming 22 lives and 5,300 structures. Four of the fires —Tubbs and Nuns in Sonoma, Atlas in Napa and Solano, and Mendocino’s Redwood Valley — now rate among the top 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history.

The fires have dealt yet another harsh blow to Napa, which is still recovering from the magnitude 6 earthquake that hit the south of the county in 2014. The quake caused an estimated $400 million in public and private sector damages and at least $80 million in losses to the wine sector. Preliminary estimates of losses from the current wildfires exceed $1 billion, according to Jones.

What next for undocumented workers?

California’s wildfires are the latest disaster that the Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) has had to deal with this year, quickly following major hurricanes that affected eight states and two U.S. territories. Applications are now open for FEMA disaster assistance grantsto help homeowners and renters pay for temporary housing, essential home repairs and uninsured/underinsured personal property losses.

Recovering from the wildfires will be particularly hard for undocumented workers employed by the region’s vineyards, hotels, and restaurants as they are not eligible for FEMA assistance unless they have a U.S. citizen in their household (e.g. a child with a Social Security number).

Napa County is home to between 11,000 and 15,000 undocumented immigrants and an estimated 28,000 live and work in Sonoma County. Many juggle two or more jobs to make ends meet. Unlike foreign national workers on the H-2A visa program that requires employers to provide free housing and transportation for seasonal agricultural employees, these workers have no safety net.

Ana Lugo, president of Sonoma-based campaign group North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP), says undocumented fire victims are dealing with losses of property and income but fear that seeking help, for instance via the local assistance centers which act as one-stop shops for disaster support, will lead to deportation.

“It’s overwhelming: they can’t pay their rent or buy food because they haven’t worked for two weeks,” says Lugo. “They were already so vulnerable before the fires; now they don’t know where to go for help.”

NBOP is among the founders of UndocuFund, which raised over $454,000 in its first week to provide direct assistance to undocumented fire victims. The fund will be administered by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, a national nonprofit based in Sebastopol, with support from Graton Day Labor Center, NBOP, and North Bay Jobs with Justice.

UndocuFund will help with costs such as temporary housing, home repairs, and medical care. “We’re in desperate need of more funds,” Lugo said. “People are going to need much more to get back on their feet.”

Supporting low-income families

California has the nation’s highest poverty rate — around 20 percent — if factors such as cost of living are factored in. The average vineyard worker salary is $30,528 or $15 an hour. But a 2013 study by the California Budget Project suggests a two-parent family with one employed parent needs an annual income of $50,383 (equivalent to an hourly wage of $24.22) while a family with two working parents needs to earn $72,343 a year (equivalent to each parent earning an hourly wage of $17.39).

The Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB) in Santa Rosa has been distributing food to fire victims via its own drive-through facility and across 70 percent of its regular distribution sites in Sonoma County. REFB says most of those using the food bank have lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently due to the fires. Some have several evacuated families staying with them in their home. And many are low-income families who were already receiving food before the fires.

“Many people working in the service industry could have already been on the edge, receiving food at work, and now they are without jobs,” explains David Goodman, CEO at REFB.

The North Bay Fire Relief Fund, run by Redwood Credit Union, state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), and the local newspaper The Press Democrat, has raised $11.3 million from more than 17,000 donors. The fund has allocated $6 million to support families who lost their homes in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties

Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco based anti-poverty group, has also set up a relief fund for “low income, vulnerable communities” impacted by the crisis, including vineyard workers, immigrants, displaced young people, and students. Phase one of funding will address urgent needs; phase two will support mid- and long-term rebuilding efforts.

In California, Latinos make up 71 percent of the workforce at vineyards and more than 40 percent of the tourism and hospitality workforce. In Sonoma’s Santa Rosa, a community decimated by the fires, Latinos account for a third of the population.

The Latino Community Foundation (LCF) has just launched the NorCal Wildfires Relief Fund to support the emergency relief and long-term reconstruction work of three regional Latino nonprofit organizations – North Bay Organizing Project in Santa Rosa, La Luz Center in Sonoma, and UpValley Family Centers in Calistoga.

Sara Velten, vice president – philanthropy at LCF, says the fund — which hopes to start distributing funds this week — will be a lifeline for low income families: “In a regular year, the winter months are hard. With the harvest season cut short, people will need help to survive,” she says.

Housing challenges

Even before the wildfires, housing in this region was scarce and costly due to limited stock and proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Santa Rosa lost over 2,900 homes, or 5 percent of its housing stock, with middle-class neighborhoods such as Coffey Park and two mobile home parks for seniors among the worst casualties. On Craigslist, the cheapest one-bedroom apartment rents for about $1,200 per month.

Joye Storey, an emergency disaster services director with the Salvation Army, says the housing prognosis is not good for low-income families. “People who already had a small window of choices and living paycheck to paycheck will have to be relocated out of town. If they have a job in town, that means a higher price for gasoline and another layer of stress.”

More affordable housing for low-income immigrant workers was among the recommendations of a 2012 Migration Policy Institute report funded by the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

NVCF president Terence Mulligan says: “More and more families are living in overcrowded housing or commuting from other counties. The worry is that housing costs are so astronomical that soon we won’t have a workforce.”

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